The Rise of Amazon and Regional Inequality

Today I wrote a review of Fulfillment for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s a meticulously reported story about how Amazon grew to behemoth proportions, taking advantage of the concentrations of wealth within specific American regions over the last two decades.

I’ll leave the review to the review and will instead wonder here what it means for a book like this to be published in an age where it will depend on Amazon for its distribution and success.

When I was writing this review, I went back into my Amazon history to find the first book I’d ordered from the service, which was back in 2000. It was a small press book written by my friend, true crime author and memoirist John Gilmore. I ordered from of Amazon because it was not readily available at the book stores I frequented at the time in Albuquerque.

It was a big change for me to order a book that way. In those days, if a book I wanted wasn’t in stock, I asked the store to order it for me and would generally receive it within a week, unless the book were rare or part of a a very small press run, which would take longer. Well, Amazon ended that relationship with book shops for me.

Years later I would go to Amazon, not a book shop, to pre-order Hapworth 16, the legendary JD Salinger story that was set to be published by a boutique press. I waited and waited but ther book never emerged, Salinger had canceled its publication.

Funny thing, though, the story had been available online at The New Yorker‘s archives and that’s how I eventually read it. I do wish I had the nice, promised edition, but I did get the story.

Back when I was learning to shop the Amazon way, I was concerned about the Barnes & Noble behemoth smothering small book shops with character and community ties out of business. Now, we worry about Barnes & Noble’s surival.

The Reading Writing Update

And, somehow a week’s gone by since my last post. I realize this website is shouting into the wind. Maybe it’s shouting at a wind that’s going the other way. I haven’t earned much of an audience, I guess. It’s difficult. There are many voices out there. Too many that I want to follow that aren’t my own, so I sympathize.

I picked up Drew Magary’s The Postmortal as a Bookbub bargain. I’m a bit over halfway through. It moves quickly, is funny and thoughtful, just like Magary’s journalism. I’ll write about it when I finished but can easily recommend it now.

I’m also slowly (pacing myself on purposes) reading a book I’ll be reviewing for a literary magazine. It’s experimental and very good.

The stacks in my office and by the bed include: Mimesis, Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Age of Innocence, Venus on the Half-Shell, Goblin Market and Cutting for Stone. All are in various states of progress, some are rereads, some I’m leafing through for ideas.

The Killers (Hemingway)

I popped open a collection of Hemingway short stories today for the oddest of reasons. Something about the name of retire pro wrestler Ole Anderson was bothering me and there it was, in “The Killers,” a Nick Adams story about two hitmen who are lying in wait to kill a former prizefighter who had, it’s suggested, double-crossed some one influential in Chicago.

The fight’s name? Ole Andreson, described as a “big swede.” I can’t help but wonder if the professional wrestler, whose given name is Alan Robert Rogowski, took the name Ole Anderson from this story, when he became part of wrestling’s worked “Anderson Family” alongside Arn and Gene Anderson as the “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” and later as a member of Ric Flair’s “Four Horsemen” stable.

But Ole looks a lot like I expect Hemingway’s character did:

Inspired by Hemingway?

It’s a good story, too. Holds up well after all these years and reads a bit like a David Mamet script or a pugilistic Waiting for Godot.

Reread: Slaughterhouse Five

It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.

So it goes!

Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.

That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.

from vonnegutdocumentary.com

Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:

  • The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
  • The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
  • Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
  • Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
  • There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
  • Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
  • His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.

He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

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